Nov 29, 2021

How Rainwater Harvesting is Transforming Helicopter Firefighting in South America

How Rainwater Harvesting is Transforming Helicopter Firefighting in South America

Fire is a natural, though devastating component of forest ecosystems around the world, seen regularly throughout North and South America, Europe, Australia, Africa and the Mediterranean region. Often uncontrolled and in recent years reaching record size, wildfires usually occur in areas of ignitable vegetation and usually ignite naturally from lightning and eruptions. Wildfires are also frequently ignited by human-induced sources, like escaped prescribed fires, arson, unextinguished campfires, trash fires, cigarettes, equipment sparks, and power line arcs.

Many of the record-breaking fires in California last year, which burned more than 10 million acres of land and included five of the six largest wildfires in its history, were caused by human error, for example.

Those out-of-control wildfires—numbering nearly 10,000—displaced untold thousands, destroyed more than 17,000 structures and cost the state over $12 billion, a deepening economic, social and environmental issue that affects more forests and countries around the world each year.

Prevention, detection, suppression, rehabilitation and reforestation remain the most important measures to stop the spread and increasing severity of wildfires around the world, and wildfire suppression using water bucket-based helicopters is still one of the most common and effective techniques to put out these deadly fires.

Since the mid-1940s, helicopters have become an essential tool for governments, forest rangers and firefighters to drop water or fire retardants on a burning wildfire. Helicopters are able to reach remote locations that firefighters are unable to access with ground transpiration. They can drop water and retardants deep within a burning fire and are integral in search and rescue missions when civilians are trapped by an inferno.

Using the Bambi Bucket, helicopter crews often source and siphon water for fire prevention from deep water sources such as rivers, lakes, and oceans. This means that the effectiveness and performance ability of a helicopter during a firefighting mission is often dependent on the distance between the fire and the nearest body of water. When bodies of water are too far from the fire, water trucks are often driven to the nearest safe location to fill portable tanks and supply water for helicopters.

However, this method can prove costly and dangerous for the drivers on the ground. And, when helicopters are unable to safely access water from a nearby source or ground transportation is impeded by an out-of-control inferno, firefighting by air can be seriously impacted.

In South America, where 95% of forest fires are the result of human error and continue to be a persistent and devastating issue, numbering over 220,000 fires in Brazil alone in 2020, new methods are being explored to shore up forested areas with stores of reserve water for helicopters.

Natural rainwater harvesting in South America

To address the issue of water access in forested areas, fire prevention experts in South America have begun to innovate rainwater harvesting to aid helicopter firefighting.

Many forest plantations in South America already employ rainwater harvesting systems, which supply water for domestic, irrigation and grazing purposes. In Central Chile, for example, rainwater collection systems provide up to 70,000 liters of water to surrounding communities in the dry season.

According to a 2015 study, fire prevention experts concluded that many of these systems represented an “exceptional opportunity for minimizing firefighting costs in forestry-developed countries.”

As described in the article, these simple and relatively economic systems can be installed on clear, flat and sloped areas located next to forest plantations. These geographic characteristics are often called “firebreaks,” and with a proper firebreak network design and installation of an optimum rainwater harvesting network, experts argue that helicopter-based firefighting could be much more effective in Central Chile. With the aid of these systems, water is made available in-situ as opposed to flying back and forth to near bodies of water or truck locations, which can be greatly affected by road networks and local infrastructure.

A wildfire rages near a Chilean city

According to South American experts, these methods can be similarly applied elsewhere, like the United States.

While there is some experience in the U.S. with rainwater harvesting for structural fires, the use of these systems for wildfire firefighting often depends on climate and region and is less prevalent in areas like the Pacific north-west, where the climate tends to be humid and streams flow year-long. Nevertheless, South American experts recognize that rainwater harvesting in the U.S. could have “tremendous potential for saving monetary and forest resources, as well as private property and human lives.”

“Having a source of water to combat wildfires in or next to [forested areas] would maximize the effectiveness of helicopters, saving millions of dollars worth of forest resources and firefighting costs,” they write.

Helicopter Express has a dedicated history of firefighting in South America

Helicopter Express is a member of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA), the Washington, D.C. headquartered trade association representing the privately operated aerial firefighting industry before the US Forest Service, and other U.S. Government agencies with responsibility for wildland protection.

As a result, Helicopter Express often engages in firefighting missions across the U.S. and, when needed, across the globe to aid humanitarian efforts in other countries.

In 2017, when Chile experienced its worst wildfire year on record, Helicopter Express sent reinforcements to South America to help experience Chilean wildfires which burned more than 1.1 million acres.

Helicopter Express pilot flies above Chilean wildfire

HX dispatched three modified Bell 205A-1 helicopters and our Kaman K-MAX along with 10 of our highly-trained employees, including a primary aerial firefighting pilot and a mechanic for each helicopter. We organized and paid for the use of a Volga-Dnepr AH-124- 100, the largest military transport aircraft in the world, to carry both our helicopters and our personnel. Each helicopter engaged in water drops, averaging about six hours of flying per day.

The destruction of the fires in Chile was catastrophic, and we were proud to have offered some immediate relief to the people and places most affected by the devastation. When we perform missions outside of the United States, we don’t just help a country in need, but we represent our own country’s great legacy of providing humanitarian relief and service.

Helicopter Express is ready, prepared and equipped to aid firefighting across the globe.

Helicopter Express has a long history of firefighting and fire prevention efforts, and we pride ourselves on our service to local governments, communities, and forest management services.

Helicopter Express’ aircraft are fully equipped to meet the critical needs of firefighting and search rescue missions. Our helicopters’ bubble windows provide a clear view of the fire and designated drop areas or rescue locations.

Moreover, we have the personnel, training, and equipment you need to support your natural resources and reduce the risk of unwanted wildfires in the future. Our trusted experts are more than capable of leading dangerous firefighting efforts and tackling firefighting emergencies while managing and conserving crucial land.

If you’re interested in learning more about our contracted disaster relief services, contact our Atlanta-based helicopter service experts today.

Make us your go-to team.

Our highly skilled pilots have the experience and equipment needed to rise to any challenge. When you need experts you can trust, give us a call.